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Judge to review Belmont investigation records, determine what's public

Superior Court Judge Carla Archie told Belmont Tuesday to turn over to the court a copy of an independent investigative report into the city's police department that led to the firing of the chief and resignations of two other officers. The document is at the center of a public records lawsuit. The city contends it is protected as a personnel record. The siblings who asked for the file contend it is outside the scope of the personnel law. 

Superior Court Judge Carla Archie ordered the city of Belmont Tuesday to file under seal a copy of a third-party investigative report that looked into problems in the police department. Archie announced in court that she would review the documents. The report is at the center fo a public records lawsuit over whether or not such third-party investigations are covered by personnel exemptions to the public records law. 

The public records dispute is rooted in a fatal car crash. 

Siblings Dan Dietz and Ellen Dietz Tucker began searching for answers soon after their sister, Donna Dietz, was killed in a 2012 car crash during a high speed police chase in Belmont. Donna Dietz was a passenger in a car driven by former Belmont Mayor Kevin Loftin. Both Donna Dietz and Loftin died when a driver fleeing police crashed into their vehicle. 

Tucker and Dan Dietz sought information from the city for years following their sister's death. They thought that might finally come in 2014 when Belmont hired an outside private investigation firm, U.S. ISS Agency, to look into problems within the police department. Soon after the private investigators completed their work, police chief Charlie Franklin was fired, and the Dietzes began asking for a copy of their report. The city denied their records requests, claiming the investigation is covered by the privacy protections in the municipal personnel statute

With the help of an attorney from the Civitas Institute's Center for Law and Freedom, Dietz and Tucker filed a lawsuit against Belmont last fall seeking to compel disclosure of the report. 

In Gaston County Superior Court Tuesday the city's attorney, Bradley Kline of Cranfill, Sumner and Harzog, argued that the documents were a part of the personnel files for three police officers - one who was fired and two others who resigned. 

"It is the city of Belmont's position that the ISS report is part of the personnel files of those three officers," Kline said. He argued that the personnel file exemption should be read broadly. 

Elliot Engstram, of Civitas, argued on behalf of Dietz and Tucker that the report was not gathered by the city, therefore it is not covered by the provisions of the personnel statute. He also argued alternatively that the report was not made with respect to any specific employees but was looking at systemic problems in the police department. 

"Does the city have the authority to enter into a relationship with another entity under the cloak of the personnel act?" Engstrom asked. "U.S. ISS Agency is not the city of Belmont." 

Archie denied the city's motion to dismiss the case and ordered a sealed copy of the investigative report and any supporting exhibits be filed so that she could review them. She did not rule on the plaintiffs motion for summary judgment, withholding her decision until the in camera review has occurred. 

See coverage of the hearing from WSOC TV here and read a report from the Gaston Gazette here. 

Return to the Sunshine Center's page here

 

Jonathan Jones,
Staff
5/17/2016 5:30 PM